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European Chemical Clampdown Reaches Across Atlantic

Many chemicals manufactured in the U.S. have been pronounced "dangerous" by the European Union
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©Dietmar Klement/istockphoto.com

Hundreds of chemicals likely to be identified by the European Union (E.U.) as "substances of very high concern" are produced throughout the U.S., sometimes in large quantities. In fact, chemicals such as varieties of plastic-softening phthalates—linked to developmental and reproductive problems because they mimic hormones—are produced in excess of hundreds of million of pounds per year, according to a new report from Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that is based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2001.

"Many chemicals that the E.U. has already identified as dangerous and will eventually regulate are produced in the U.S. by many different companies at many different sites," says biochemist Richard Denison of EDF, author of the report "Across the Pond: Assessing REACH's First Big Impact on U.S. Companies and Chemicals". "The market is going to respond to that, companies that use those chemicals will be looking to find safer alternatives."

These dangerous chemicals have been identified via the E.U.'s 2007 Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) law, which requires the disclosure of all chemicals sold in the E.U. in quantities of more than one metric ton per year. As it stands, 16 chemicals, including three phthalates, are already on the REACH list as chemicals of concern. And in coming years, the REACH law will require that companies prove the safety of a given chemical before it is allowed to be sold; those chemicals deemed dangerous—or "substances of very high concern" due to associated human health risks—will only be sold with special governmental permission.

Of the 267 chemicals on the potential expanded REACH list compiled by the International Chemical Secretariat in Sweden, two are regulated in some form under U.S. law—asbestos and hexavalent chromium (chromium VI)—and only one third have even been tested by the EPA. "Asbestos is the poster child for what's wrong with the Toxics Substances Control Act," the 1976 U.S. law governing such chemicals, Denison says. EPA attempted to craft a regulation to ban its use only to have it rejected by courts. "They couldn't even do it for asbestos," which causes lung disease and cancer.

All told, the U.S. manufactures more than one billion pounds (455 million kilograms) of 14 potential REACH-listed chemicals, including two varieties of toluene; 85 more are made in quantities exceeding one million pounds (455,000 kilograms), like the phthalates which have already been regulated in some cases in the E.U.

BASF, Chemtura, Dow, DuPont and Equistar make the most of these suspect chemicals in the U.S., and Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas host operations that manufacture them. Some of the most commonly produced dangerous chemicals include benzene, formaldehyde, styrene, hexane and butadiene.

Whereas Germany-based chemical giant BASF "unreservedly supports the goals of REACH in protecting man and the environment," it remains unclear how that will impact its chemical operations in the U.S. "Chemical manufacturing is our core business," BASF spokesman Daniel Pepitone says. "We have already begun an internal product evaluation and, based on risk assessment, we want to review all substances produced or sold worldwide in the BASF Group in quantities of more than one metric ton."

"Information regarding the hazardous properties of substances is simply one component that is needed for the safe and responsible handling of chemical products," he continues. "Further information, such as the type and extent of potential exposure to humans and the environment, is also required."

And some U.S. states are taking matters into their own hands: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed into law yesterday two bills that will attempt to identify dangerous substances manufactured or used in the state, develop safer alternatives to commonly used dangerous compounds as well as create a web-based database of common chemicals for individuals.

This legislation "puts an end to the less effective chemical-by-chemical bans of the past," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "We will stop looking at toxics as an inevitable by-product of industrial production. Instead, they will be something that can be removed from every product in the design stage—protecting people's health and our environment."

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